Neill Blomkamp, the South African wonder who made the now cult short “Alive in Joburg”, and did animations for countless TV series, gets to show off his directing chops in District 9. Backed by Peter Jackson himself, and expanding on the theme of Alive in Joburg, District 9 is superficially a Sci-Fi alien “invasion” film, but not so deep down inside it is so much more. It is no coincidence that the story is set in Johannesburg, the capital of the Apartheid movement, and well known for its black segregationist regime and all black townships like Soweto. The plot is inspired by events that happened in District 6, which was decalred white only, and a large number of blacks were relocated to Cape Flats. The fear of invading illegal immigrants is quite palpable in most of the Caucasian world, and also feeds into the sentiments explored in District 9. While not the most subtle of efforts, the film does do a commendable job of growing on you and leaving you shaken and a little disturbed at the true meaning of the tale.
The story is told in documentary style, with a jittery hand held, and many interviews that alllow the tale to unfold. A large spaceship appears in the Joburg skies and hovers there unmoving for a long time. Eventually its hull is breached and it is discovered to be full of aliens who are moved into a barbed wire fenced compound. And “Aliens not allowed” signs crop up all over the city. They are called “prawns” and generate much fear and discrimination among the populace of all ethnicities! Sharito Copley plays Wikus van der Merwe, a most unlikely protagonist, and an employee of Multinational United, MNU. His overt job is to relocate the alien “prawns” to another settlement, but covertly the MNU is much more – it deals in arms! The aliens themselves are seen as scavenging, cat food chomping, insectoid creatures. So we have all the stereotypes, the aliens are the hated unknown quantity, and the humans are the vile haters.
Then slowly Blomkamp does an emotional bait and switch on us, the aliens are insectoid but they come more and more into focus, and then we see eyes, faces, moving facial appendages, EMOTIONS! The movie turns into a social commentary as we now begin to empathize with the plight of the aliens, their inhuman living conditions. Their weird fascination for cat food is now parallel to what some may think of ethnic food with its unique smells and flavors. And the “genetic” experiments conducted on the aliens remind one of Goebbels and what happened in concentration camps. They have children who are appealing and intelligent, and their oppression is hard to take. Amidst all this the humans continue their activities – the MNU is clearing them out, while desperately trying to figure out how to operate alien arms, the Nigerians want the same thing and also exploit the food preferences of the aliens, and the cops and military just shoot ’em up at every opportunity. Other humans want them sent away somewhere, anywhere, after all they are not even from this planet (read “from this state/country/continent”)! The human who first connects to the aliens is one who is slowly turning into them. In essence we have to be them to understand them.
The story has its gripping moments, flows quite well and takes off about 20 minutes in when we realize hw we have been set up. The docudrama style works well, though the jittery shots are sometimes a little nausea inducing. There is implied gore and violence. The acting is excellent throughout and Sharito Copley is great as the somewhat unctuous and stupid man, who becomes an unexpected and unintentioned hero. I cannot commend Blomkamp enough for having a child that is normal, intelligent, and not cute or annoying. The conventional action film norms require that there are protracted shootouts to get in and shootouts to get out, but Blomkamp shuns that and cuts quickly to the chase. His awe of SciFi greats like Robocop, Terminator, is quite evident in the final third of the film. But his style is more terse and to the point. The SFX is sophisticated and the alien ship is quite awesome as it hovers over Joburg.
The film is not without flaws. In fact there are a few huge gaping ones. Who would allow the aliens to move out of their ship WITH all the weaponry? If ONLY aliens can operate it, why on earth are they selling it to the Nigerians for cat food? I would understand if they were shown to be intensely pacifist, but they are shown to be quite violent. Despite these fflaws, the film sets out to achieve, and does achieve the goal of pricking our conscience, and making us aware of our inherent fears of the unknown, the “alien”. It is no wonder immigrants to this country are called aliens, legal or illegal!